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Published in CenterView on April 15, 2013

New rural health, disparities leader discusses state’s childhood obesity challenge

By Bruce Coleman

Personal advice from a three-time Grammy Award winner has helped Dr. Bettina M. Beech keep a healthy perspective on one of Mississippi’s most difficult challenges.

BeechWhile serving as co-director of the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at Wake Forest University, Beech said the renowned poet and author once counseled her about preparing for success.

“She told me, ‘Do it first, and then talk about it,’” Beech said. “If the plan is good, it will be evident by the success it is having.”

As the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s new associate vice chancellor of rural health and health disparities tackles the increasing epidemic of childhood obesity in the state, Beech is confident that success will surely follow.

The picture may seem bleak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the last 30 years. And nowhere is the condition more prevalent than in Mississippi, where the CDC says 13.7 percent of the state’s children between the ages of 2 and 5 are obese.

“Contributing to the reduction of childhood obesity is my passion,” she said. “We have got to continue working to make the changes that are necessary to turn the tide here in this state. I am going to do what I can to add to the ongoing work that is already showing signs of success.”

Dr. Richard deShazo, professor of medicine and pediatrics and former chair of the Department of Medicine, said Beech is “just the person we have needed as an academic partner” to help develop a coordinated, long-term plan to translate science at the Medical Center into programs that work in the community.

“Dr. Beech is a nationally known sociologist who has been studying how culture and human behavior affect health choices, and obesity in particular,” deShazo said. “Now that Dr. Beech is here to help steer (our) efforts in an evidence-based manner, we hope that the impact of all of them and the new research programs she is developing will have a major effect.”

Beech’s desire to help stem childhood obesity in Mississippi was evidenced long before she came to UMMC in January.

As principal investigator of a Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development supplemental grant the Jackson Heart Study Kids, a feasibility study that enrolled children and grandchildren of Jackson Heart Study participants, Beech was introduced to Dr. Warren Jones, founding executive director of the Mississippi Institute for the Improvement of Geographical Minority Health Disparities (MIIGMHD), Dr. James Keeton, vice chancellor for health affairs, and Dr. Claude Brunson, senior advisor to the vice chancellor for external affairs.
As Jones was retiring from the Medical Center, he, Keeton and Brunson recruited Beech to her newly created position at UMMC, which has oversight of the MIIGMH.

“Dr. Beech brings a renewed focus to our institution in the area of population research and health inequities,” Brunson said, “ultimately leading to more effective strategies and systems of care that will address major health issues affecting Mississippians.”

Among her more immediate goals is to work with Dr. LouAnn Woodward, associate vice chancellor for health affairs, to reinstitute a preventive medicine department at UMMC.

“It’s a big change,” Beech said. “We need to have that department housed in the School of Medicine and it needs to have a preventive medicine residency program attached to it.”

“She has the background, experience and expertise to build programs targeted at addressing health disparity in Mississippi,” Woodward said. “Her leadership wll take us to the next level in the area of population health and health disparities.”

Another of Beech’s charges is to coordinate and expand rural health research.

“I will be working with all of the schools at the Medical Center and the Office of Physician Workforce to help prepare and train students to be better equipped to manage rural health and health disparities and to improve the health status of all Mississippians.”

A native of California, Beech became familiar with the Magnolia State while she served on faculty at the Tulane University School of Public Health, the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee School of Medicine and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Although Mississippi’s health challenges are well documented, Beech said there are many opportunities to have a positive impact in the state.

“Mississippi is one of the most wired places in the United States,” she said. “The telemedicine program provides a great opportunity to embrace, expand and enhance tele-health and tele-education in rural areas across the state.”

Another advantage Beech noted is how naturally welcoming UMMC faculty and staff and the citizens they serve can be.

“Collegiality’s a big asset when you have individuals willing to work together and form effective partnerships,” she said. “That gives you the substance to move things along together.”

The key to surviving any challenge, according to Beech, is unity. It’s the reason she prefers the term “health equity” to “health disparity.”

“The term ‘disparity’ invites a comparison that has nothing to do with what you’re trying to reach as an objective,” she said. “We need to work to improve the health status of everyone as a way to reach our goal.”

And nowhere is unity more important than in Mississippi.

“It’s a large state with a small population,” she said. “It takes all of us working from our individual strengths to move us forward.

“My goal is to have this office partner with others to make a positive change and to have those in other states say, ‘Let’s do what Mississippi did. Let’s make the changes they made. If I can play some small part in that, it would be a success. And I think we’ve got the right people to accomplish that goal.”